The candidates in one of the most competitive council district races in the city—District 40, encompassing Lefferts Gardens, Flatbush and Ditmas Park—faced off at a final debate on Sunday afternoon hosted by the League of Women Voters NYC.
Brian Cunningham, who placed second in a tight race against incumbent Mathieu Eugene in the Democratic primary, is running on the Reform Party line in Tuesday’s general election. While Eugene has the backing of the Democratic establishment, including Mayor de Blasio and Borough President Eric Adams, as well as many unions, Cunningham has clinched several nominations from progressive groups in the past couple weeks, including the Working Families Party endorsement. A third candidate, Brian Kelly is running on the Conservative line.
Eugene was more than 10 minutes late, and Kelly didn’t show. Throughout the course of the afternoon, Cunningham, commanding and succinct, characterized the councilmember as inactive, highlighted the affordability crisis and laid out specific policy proposals that he would pursue if elected to address housing costs and other issues—though some of his ideas could only be accomplished with support from the state legislature. Eugene spoke more verbosely, pointing to his accomplishments and experience—and provided a stirring ending to the event.
Eugene, who took office in April 2007 through a special election and is the first Haitian-born councilmember, received 41 percent of the vote in the primary; Cunningham took 30 percent. Cunningham blasted Eugene for the fact that within the past 10 years, only seven bills on which Eugene was the primary sponsor have been enacted, compared with neighboring councilmembers Jumanne Williams, who has passed 41 bills in eight years, and Laurie Cumbo, who passed 16 bills in four years. Eugene emphasized his experience and victory in the primary, and criticized Cunningham for failing to concede and for switching parties.
When asked by moderator Ben Max of Gotham Gazette whether Eugene had learned anything based on the fact that almost 60 percent of the district had voted for someone else, Eugene said no, implying that it was normal for the district to vote for a variety of people in the primary. Cunningham, meanwhile, argued that he was a lifelong Democrat but wanted to give a chance for non-registered Democrats to support him in the general election, adding, “I’ve been endorsed by the Working Families Party which is far left of the Democratic Party.”
Asked how they regarded the needs of each pocket of a very diverse district, Eugene explained, “I’ve been working with my colleagues not to serve one ethnic background, but to serve all,” while Cunningham spoke specifically about the “homeowners in Ditmas Park who need property taxes reduced,” “the pain of the immigrants in Flatbush” and the rent burdens in Lefferts Garden.
On the subject of constituent services, Cunningham said he’d hold town halls and keep the district office open in the evenings and weekends, among other ideas. Eugene said he had already received the number one rank in the Council for the provision of services, that the office functions on weekends and hosts many forums. Cunningham, who had brought his tablet to the stage, quickly looked up City and State’s Council rankings and reported that Eugene had received a ranking of “20” among the 51 councilmembers for constituent services.
When it came to affordable housing, Eugene said he’d brought 800 units of affordable housing to the district, including units targeted to extremely low incomes, and would continue to deliver more affordable units. Cunningham, who has the backing of the tenant’s rights organization TenantsPAC, said he would work with nonprofits to build affordable housing, fight for rent freezes and rent roll backs for rent-stabilized apartments, protect rent-stabilized units from destabilization and work with the state legislature to ensure future housing unit affordability levels are based on “community median income,” not on the federal Area Median Income metric. (It’s the jurisdiction of the state legislature, however, to change the laws governing rent-stabilized apartments. And while one can fairly argue that the city’s affordable housing isn’t sufficiently affordable, there may be technical problems with actually changing the AMI metric itself, as reported by DNAInfo.)
Eugene argued back that he was, in fact, working with nonprofits to develop affordable housing and that he’d “been at the forefront of the fight to ask for the rent to be freezed.”
Asked if the district faced too much out-of-control development and needed a downzoning to place caps on density and height, Eugene agreed and said that he had already sent letters of support for downzoning initiatives in the district (zoning changes must go through the City Planning Commission, but a councilmember’s support is also vital). Cunningham argued the community had been waiting too long for downzonings under Eugene. “We need to get R7 zoning under control immediately…developers are getting tax subsidies to build quote-on-quote affordable housing,” he said.
They also spoke about the rent troubles faced by small businesses. Cunningham wants a tax on vacancy (though that would also likely need state backing), a tax incentive for small businesses with four or more employees, and the passage of state legislation that would create a new universal single-payer health care system, which he says would not only ensure healthcare access but also lower business costs. Eugene says he supports the idea of giving incentives to landlords who keep rents low, but he also emphasized that the affordability crisis extended far beyond the district. He mentioned the Flatbush Caton Market redevelopment project as an example of the support he is providing to small businesses. The market will include a new incubator space, a new home for the Caribbean Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and free rent in a temporary space for current businesses while the market is being renovated.
On the city budget: Eugene explained he is a member of the participatory budgeting program (in which councilmembers set aside a portion of their discretionary capital funds to be allocated through a democratic community voting process). Cunningham said he’d expand the program to encompass his entire discretionary budget.
When it came to how to tackle quality-of-life issues like construction, rats and street noise, Eugene was short on specifics, noting that rats are in fact a problem throughout the city. “Let’s stop talking about what’s happening all over the city,” Cunningham fired back, putting forth an ambitious proposition to try to institute a limit on the number of projects that can be in the ground at the same time.
Neither could go into much detail on the subject of how to address school integration. Cunningham said he couldn’t answer the question in the limited time allowed, and Eugene said “all the schools in the city should be good schools” so parents don’t have to worry about sending their children to any school.
Eugene, who is a doctor and also chairs the Committee on Youth Services, was especially passionate when it came to health and young people. Eugene hailed the major expansions in the Summer Youth Employment Program and the creation of a year-round youth employment program; he also called for vocational schools and medical services within senior centers. Cunningham questioned whether Eugene had really led the charge on youth issues; he emphasized job training, SAT prep, after-school programming for every school in the district, senior housing and full meal programs in senior centers. (Eugene added that he’d also fought for after school and senior units.)
The lightening round of question-and-answer exposed some further differences. Cunningham gave De Blasio a C for his first term, while Eugene, who at first resisted giving a letter grade, offered a B. Cunningham came out in support of a congestion pricing system while Eugene sided against it.
Cunningham has Planned Parenthood’s endorsement, while Eugene is known for abstaining on a bill that regulates anti-abortion clinics. Asked for their current stance on the issue, Eugene told a story of a woman who chose to have her child even though her life was at risk, as well as another story of a woman who chose to have an abortion, ultimately saying “I don’t have the authority to tell a woman what to do with her body…We should leave to the woman the opportunity to choose.” Cunningham: “A woman always has the right to choose what she wants to do with her body.”
The evening did not end without drama. There was loud cheering from the Eugene camp at the back of the room, followed by a vigorous, sustained cheering from the Cunningham camp, and then another bout from the Eugene camp while Duane Joseph, a community board member and one of the event organizers, tried to make closing remarks. When the cheering from the Eugene camp seemed like it might not stop, Joseph turned to Eugene for help and the councilmember shrugged, at which point Cunningham seized the mic and urged the crowd to “pay respect for the moderators here.” The room seemed about to break into brawling.
Eugene asked the crowd to calm down, but a minute later he interrupted Joseph, shouting that Joseph was a Cunningham volunteer and that it was unfair the debate had been moderated by a Cunningham supporter. While it was true Joseph was a volunteer for Cunningham, he had not spoken up to that point. The actual moderator, Gotham Gazette’s Max, shook his head in disagreement, but Eugene then descended from the stage and left the church with his supporters.